A short blog about Haggis.
I was nine years old when I arrived home from school one day soaked by my mile-long walk in an absolute deluge. In the sitting room, I found two young men smoking cigarettes and sipping cups of tea. They had been cleaning windows in the street when the heavens opened, which explained the long ladders I had just walked past in the front garden. My mother had taken pity on them, inviting them in to sit out the storm. They were called Jimmy and Haggis. As they were on friendly terms with my brother Mikey, I had seen them briefly before, talking and laughing with him on the main street.
They were both chatty, friendly, both speaking to me as I entered the room. To my mother and older sister, they were talking about the recent gigs they’d done in the town. It turned out they were members of the best known of the local bands. Even I had heard of them. The one called Haggis drew my attention most. He was good-looking, with an open face and big warm smile. He wore a brown suede jacket that I thought was the coolest item of clothing I’d ever seen a man wear. Long suede fringes hung from the front and back, and from all the way down the underside of the sleeves. It looked to me, like something an American Indian would wear. I wished I could have one just like it.
Haggis patted the seat next to him on the big old art-deco sofa. “Take a seat.” he said, as if it was his house. I liked him straight away, so did as he suggested instead of drifting off upstairs as I usually would have done. I was nine, but still so small, so shy, he guessed my age to be six. He’d thought that me and my younger sister were twins.
It was clear that he liked my older sister, so I suspect that she had more to do with him starting to visit us in the evenings, than his friendship with Mikey did. My parents liked him, but my sister was too wrapped up in liking another man to accept Haggis when he asked her out on a date. The man she liked was a bad lot, violent and dishonest, and would cause huge rifts within the family, so perhaps that’s partly why my parents encouraged Haggis to visit as often as he did. To me, he had such a kindly face, and one so very much of the time, I felt a little star struck whenever I saw him.
One evening he brought round a tape recorder, something I’d never seen before. Huge reels slowly turned as he played some of his songs to us. He said he could record too so my mother recited a poem into it that she’d remembered from school. She seemed so animated, putting real feeling and expression into the lines. Haggis was obviously impressed, which pleased her. She was a woman with lots of talents that had always been held back by circumstance. She had never been allowed to shine, as she might have.
He played it back and she sounded so much more Geordie on there than we all felt she did in life. She was shocked, but was loving the experience.
Haggis turned to me. Would I like to have a go? I shrunk back in my seat, shaking my head. My mother was all for it. “Oh, he knows all sorts of poems and songs.” she said, dropping me in it. “Why not sing Nellie the Elephant. You like that.” Haggis held the microphone to my face and turned the recorder on. Nothing happened. Nothing came out. My face turned red and all I could do was look at the floor. “Well, just try saying Testing, testing, one two three.” He suggested. He put his arm round my shoulder, smiled and nodded to me to begin. And I did begin, oh so quietly, but I did begin. I said the dreaded Testing, testing, one two three. That pleased him, but hearing it back was too much for me. I didn’t want that. I left the room and went up to bed.
Some time later, as my older sister and I were walking past the small cafe in the centre of town, there was a tap on the window. Haggis was there, beckoning us in. He sat us down at his table, and asked what we’d like. I didn’t know what you could have. I’d rarely been in a cafe. My sister asked for a cup of tea, but I didn’t like tea very much. He said he’d get me something, and came back to the table with a strangely shaped bottle of a dark drink. He handed me a straw to drink it with. The first time I’d ever tasted Coca-Cola. It seemed so exotic and I liked it.
I liked Haggis, so I clearly remember the last time I saw him. I’d heard a knock at our door late one afternoon. I was upstairs doing some drawing so thought little of it. It was some time before I went downstairs, an hour or more, to find my sister at the door, talking quietly to Haggis, who stood dejectedly outside on the step. I said hello and he weakly smiled, but my sister’s expression told me not to hang around. In the living room I asked Mum why Haggis hadn’t come in. She looked disappointed herself. She said she thought Haggis was here to try one last attempt at asking sis out, but that she was having none of it. What Mum didn’t know at that point, was that my sister was already much more deeply involved with the other man than she was admitting. It didn’t show yet, but a baby was heading in our direction.
Haggis went away at last, and though Mikey saw him sometimes, I never did again. So it was both lovely and sad to see his face again last week, in an old photograph taken around the time I knew him. Lovely that his face and especially his smile were just as I remembered. Sad, because it came with the news that he had just died of cancer.
Haggis (centre), Jimmy (left)